Should I exercise according to my menstrual cycle?

Should I exercise according to my menstrual cycle?

clock-circular-outlinePosted 27 Jun 2023

Have you noticed there are some days that you don't feel as strong or energized in the gym? Your changing menstrual cycle hormones may be the reason.

Nearly half of women in the UK believe that their menstrual cycle negatively impacts their training and performance. Your hormones – namely estrogen and progesterone – rise and fall across the four key phases of your menstrual cycle (yes, your cycle is much more than just your period!).

"This fluctuation means that your body will feel different during your period, mid-cycle and premenstrual," explains gynecologist, Dr Nithya Ratnavelu. "Your hormones can affect everything from your body temperature and energy levels to your metabolism and muscle laxity," – meaning that some days you'll feel totally revved up, and others you'll feel wiped.

This is why more women are tuning into their bodies and harnessing the power of cycle syncing, particularly in the fitness space. From wellness TikTok creators to the England women's football team, more people are tailoring their nutrition, training and recovery around their cycles to help them feel and perform at their best.

So, is it really worth adapting your workouts to your menstrual cycle? What are the benefits and where do you start?

What's cycle syncing – and how can it help my training?

Cycle syncing is about tracking your menstrual cycle, either manually on your calendar or with a period-tracking app like Flo or Clue.

There are four key phases of your cycle – the menstrual, follicular, ovulatory, and luteal. Tracking them helps you understand your body better, but it also means you can adapt lifestyle habits like your diet and exercise routine to the different phases – and it comes with some big potential gains.

First of all, it helps you become more in tune with your hormones and enables you to predict and manage symptoms like pain, bloating, tiredness and mood swings.

It can also help you take your workouts to the next level. "Connecting to your cycle helps you realize that you don't have to train the same way every day," says Le'Nise Brothers, women's health specialist and author of You Can Have a Better Period. In fact, it can help you conserve energy when you need, understand when it's time to go harder, and help you train more consistently.

What are the key menstrual cycle hormones at play?

"If you go to the doctor, they'll usually break down the menstrual cycle into just two phases – follicular and luteal," says Le'Nise. "But what we now know is that there are a lot of variations in our hormones that happen across your cycle."

If we go deeper, these changing hormones affect many aspects of your health. There are three key hormones at play, and they peak and trough at different times:

Estrogen – the main hormone that regulates your menstrual cycle. Estrogen is lowest during your period and then peaks just before ovulation. It can affect your mood and energy levels, but also how you metabolize carbs and your bone health.

Progesterone – progesterone is important for ovulation and prepares your body for a potential fertilized egg to implant and grow. It helps to regulate estrogen, promotes bone growth, and has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. It peaks just after ovulation.

Testosterone – testosterone helps to regulate your sex drive and mood, and helps us build muscle. Like estrogen, it peaks just before ovulation.

How to exercise according to your menstrual cycle

There's no one-size fits all or a set menstrual cycle workout plan. Just as there's no 'normal' cycle – the average is around 28 days, but it can range from 21-35 days. And things may change for you month on month.

"I think it's important that you do this in a way that feels easy for you," says Le'Nise. "If you're not tracking your menstrual cycle, just start there. Notice how long your menstrual cycles are, how you feel, and shifts in yourself.

"Then, you can start to overlay things like exercise and workout types. You could start doing this with your Apple Watch or Garmin, or an app like Jennis (Jessica Ennis-Hill's cyclesyncing app)." Really, it's about listening to your body and giving yourself permission to move in ways that feel good to you at the time.

The 4 Key Phases Of Your Menstrual Cycle

  1. Your menstrual phase – around 3-7 days

  2. Your follicular phase – around 6-11 days

  3. Your ovulatory phase – around 5 days including ovulation

  4. Your luteal phase – around 10-14 days

Here's an overview of the four key phases of your menstrual cycle and exercise tips:

1. Your menstrual phase – around 3-7 days

What are your hormones doing and how might you feel?

"During your period, your estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest points," says Dr Nithya. Instead, hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins are at play. These trigger the muscles in your uterus to contract and shed the lining (your period), and in doing so, they cause inflammation and painful cramps – around 80% of women get these.

Low estrogen levels might also cause things like headaches and low energy, and because you're losing blood (and more water than usual) you can become dehydrated. "Your body also preferentially burns carbohydrates as a source of fuel," which is why you might experience cravings.

Tips for adapting your workout:

  • Rest – it's normal around this time to feel more tired, especially if you experience painful and/or heavy periods. "This is your invitation to rest if you need, stay hydrated and do what feels good for your body," says Le'Nise.

  • Move to ease the pain – studies show that exercise can help to reduce period pain. "Movement reduces the prostaglandin and exercise – especially aerobic – can produce endorphins, which block pain receptors and might help with painful cramps," says Dr Nithya.

  • Opt for low-intensity – try low-intensity aerobic exercises that don't put too much extra stress on your body. "Maybe swap the spin class for slow flow yoga, walks, Pilates or swimming," suggests Le'Nise. When you incorporate slow, conscious breathing, this also helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps reduce inflammation and your stress hormone, cortisol.

2. Your follicular phase – around 6-11 days

What are your hormones doing and how will you feel?

"Oestrogen levels rise steadily once your period ends, peaking mid-cycle at ovulation, while progesterone remains low," says Dr Nithya. "You're more likely to feel energized in the follicular phase due to this prevalence of estrogen over progesterone.

"Oestrogen is also linked to building muscle mass, improving mood and recovery." So, it can be easier to build muscle and you'll feel more motivated to work out!

Finally, "rising estrogen affects the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brain called serotonin and dopamine," says Le'Nise. "This change makes us more attuned to newness and trying new things, so it's a great time to try a new class or new type of movement."

The only catch is that new research suggests that you might be at a higher risk of injury. This might be because rising estrogen levels can make our ligaments laxer, or it might be that feeling this pumped means taking more risks or pushing harder.

Tips for adapting your workout:

  • Go big on strength – "This is the time where you're going to feel at your strongest and most energized," explains Le'Nise. It's a great time to dial up your resistance and strength training. Studies have shown that stacking this kind of training now, then going lighter in your next phase leads to 15% more strength gains, than spreading it out equally.

  • Try high intensity – you could also channel your energy into more intense running, spin or HIIT sessions. But don't forget to plot in rest days to allow your muscles to re-coup and build back stronger. "And don't skimp on your warm-up or cool down, as this can help to reduce that injury risk," says Dr Nithya.

3. Your ovulatory phase – around 5 days including ovulation

What are your hormones doing and how will you feel? Just before you ovulate (when a mature egg is released from one of your two ovaries) your estrogen levels rise to their highest point. This is why your energy peaks and so you'll probably feel at your best.

Right after ovulation, your estrogen levels have a second, smaller rise before they begin to decline. Progesterone also begins to rise. "Progesterone has a catabolic effect, which means that we metabolize fat and protein more effectively. This is why women might get hungrier in the second half of their menstrual cycle," says Le'Nise.

Tips for adapting your workout:

  • Prioritise endurance – progesterone has an anti-anxiety effect and together with estrogen boosts energy. "The small peak in estrogen after ovulation can cause an increase in energy expenditure (or your basal metabolic rate). A few studies have shown that this can boost your endurance performance as it revs up your metabolism," says Le'Nise.

  • Dial up the cardio – this phase is good news for building muscle and burning fat (if that's a goal of yours). Cardio in general might feel easier around this time and you might feel that you can keep going for longer. It's a great time for high-intensity workouts, such as circuit training.

  • Reach for those PBs – there's also a point during ovulation where you might get a small spike of testosterone. According to research, this can be a sweet spot for reaching a PB, so now's the time to tag on an extra set or up the load.

4. Your luteal phase – around 10-14 days

What are your hormones doing and how will you feel?

"While your estrogen levels start to decline gradually, your progesterone levels peak mid-luteal phase," says Dr Nithya. "Progesterone increases your basal body temperature, affects brain performance and can increase tiredness."

During the week before your period, progesterone levels begin to fall, and so do your feel-good neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine.

These hormonal changes are part of the reason why around 90% of women experience premenstrual symptoms like bloating or feeling tearful. You might feel like you can't be bothered to exercise or moodier than usual.

Tips for adapting your workout:

  • Go easy – "This is the time to really tune into your body and give it what it needs," says Le'Nise. "Lower levels of estrogen and serotonin mean that you're less likely to gravitate towards new movement and perhaps need to move your body in familiar ways. Ask yourself, what do I actually need today?"

  • Move regularly – just as exercise can help with period pain, it can also help with those pesky premenstrual symptoms. But, there's no pressure to go hard and max out on those jump squats or deadlifts. A recent review looked at the impact of exercise on PMS and found that it's not the type of exercise but the regularity that can help.

What if I'm on contraception?

"If you're on the pill or certain other hormonal contraceptives like the Depo Provera injection, these can suppress ovulation," says Le'Nise. So, you won't produce progesterone and you won't necessarily feel the benefit of that hormone.

But, Le'Nise and Dr Nithya's principles remain the same: listen to your body, don't expect to feel the same way or train in the same way every day.

You can still track how you feel, and practicing tracking your cycle could be useful in the long term. If and when you choose to come off contraception, you've established the habit and can incorporate the new information into your life and workouts.

So, is working out according to my menstrual cycle worth the effort?

Sure, adapting your workout based on your menstrual cycle might sound like a lot of admin, but if you can find a way that works for you and fits into your life easily, you can reap big benefits.

Not only will it help you feel more in sync with your body, it could be your route to maximizing your training – helping you pinpoint the time to really push it, and when it's time to opt for slower, more nourishing movement. Win-win.

. . .

Amy is a health and fitness editor. She's led on content for brands like Livi and Vitality, and has written for Runner’s World, Happy Place and TechRadar. Her specialist areas are women’s health and mental wellbeing, and you can usually find her out walking her two dogs or trying to master new yoga inversions.

Amy BonifasBy Amy Bonifas

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